The strategy that China now seems to be displaying in the U.S. can be deployed to punish elected leaders around the world for any number of reasons. China could utilize a variation of this strategy in a confrontation over any issue a country with an elected leader might have with Beijing, from trade abuses to human-rights violations.
If the U.S. is ultimately perceived to have lost the trade conflict, the leaders of democracies around the world will take notice. They will learn that confronting Beijing risks provoking a campaign of democratic destabilization—one that was successful elsewhere. They will need to weigh that risk against the potential rewards. China could point to the U.S. trade conflict to remind democracy’s leaders of this peril. And if any such leaders defiantly forged ahead, Beijing could draw on a playbook sharpened from its U.S. experience.
China’s victory, then, would bring about a world in which democracies are enfeebled and the largest autocracy is emboldened.